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Catholic World News News Feature

Has the Pendulum Swung Too Far Back? December 27, 2002

Bishops in England and Wales are embroiled in a new controversy following revelations that their child protection policy may violate the Code of Canon Law. The bishops are facing renewed pressure to amend the procedures so as to ensure that clergy and religious are not exposed to false and malicious allegations.

The new norms for dioceses in England and Wales require a priest accused of child abuse to be put on immediate administrative leave, like teachers and other professionals. But canon law states that a cleric can only be suspended from his parish once the penal process has begun. The Code of Canon Law also stipulates that an accused priest must be informed by his bishop of the accusations and have access to an independent canon lawyer.

Under the bishops' new national child protection policy, all allegations of child abuse must be handed over to the statutory authorities. Priests accused of abuse must be removed from their pastoral duties while the investigation is carried out by police and social services.

The new procedures were drawn up following a string of high-profile sex abuse scandals involving pedophile priests in England and Wales. In some cases, bishops had covered up sexual abuse by clergy: moving pedophiles to new parishes where they had gone on to re-offend.

The most notable recent scandal involved Archbishop John Ward, the former Archbishop of Cardiff, Wales, whose failure to deal with two pedophiles was the subject of a highly damaging TV documentary two years ago. Archbishop Ward had warned Father Joe Jordan, who is now serving an eight-year sentence for abusing young boys, of his impending arrest. He also tried to protect Father John Lloyd, a diocesan press officer and aide, who was convicted of sexually abusing children.


In September 2000, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster asked an independent committee, chaired by Lord Nolan, a Catholic life peer and Law Lord, to review the Church's policy on child protection. The 12-member panel of police, psychiatrists, and other experts presented its final report, A Program for Action--better known as the Nolan Report--last September. No members of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland sat on the Nolan committee. But Archbishop Peter Smith, a trained canon lawyer, who replaced Archbishop Ward in Cardiff, was involved in drawing up the new child-protection procedures.

Father Francis Marsden, a theologian and leading newspaper commentator in the United Kingdom, is adamant that procedures outlined in the Nolan Report violate both canon law and natural justice. He argues that the Catholic hierarchy is now "overcompensating" for past failures in its handling of pedophile priests. Father Marsen says:

The Nolan Report has recommended a process that doesnt follow canonical norms. The process of investigation has to fit in with canon law. But in the present climate, a priest is guilty until he's proved innocent.

Father Marsden's comments follow a case in his own Liverpool archdiocese in which a priest was removed from his parish without warning by the vicar general and child protection officers. The accused cleric was returned to his parish a month later after the allegations turned out to be false. His family was so outraged by his treatment that they threatened to sue the archdiocese for damages, and even to take their case before the European Court of Human Rights.

In January of this year, the bishops set up the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (COPCA), to head the Church's child protection policy. COPCA's role is to enforce the recommendations outlined in the Nolan Report in all dioceses throughout England and Wales. The new national unit is led by Eileen Shearer, a non-Catholic child protection specialist who is paid a salary equivalent to what would be expected for a director of social services.

At the time of its launch, COPCA's chairman, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, said the new unit in Birmingham would "deliberately" be set at a distance from the offices of the archdiocese "so that they are clearly not part of--for want of a better phrase--the ecclesiastical bureaucracy."


In a sharply worded attack on the new policies, which appeared in his regular weekly Catholic Times column, Father Marsden said: "We all want to stamp out child abuse, but the pendulum has swung too far. The bishops and COPCA need to work out protocols which protect all innocent parties, priests included."

Father Marsden argued that the Nolan committee had "zero authority to make laws for priests." He explained:

Only the Holy See has the right to alter canon law. Nolan's guidelines have only the authority of a local bishop who chooses to introduce them into his diocese. Where Nolan's rules clash with canon law, the bishop is acting ultra vires--illegally--should he attempt to apply them. A priest who knows his rights can simply refuse to comply with illegal demands.

Father Marsden said the Code of Canon Law contained "nothing about 'immediate administrative leave.'" He also observed: "Although neutral in theory, Nolan-style 'administrative leave' can in practice destroy a priests reputation and apostolate."

Father Marsen argued:

No diocesan official or child-protection officer has any right to arrive unannounced and order a parish priest out of his presbytery. The processes which must be followed in such cases are laid down in the Code of Canon Law, in the Penal Process section (1717-31).

Father Shaun Middleton, spokesman for the National Conference of Priests, (NCP), agrees that Catholic clergy are vulnerable to false allegations. He says the majority of priests are unaware of their rights under the Code of Canon Law. The NCP is due to hold a study day in January to address priests' concerns about being falsely accused. Speakers from Britain and the United States will be invited to address the conference.

Father Middleton explains: "Every priest wants to protect children and vulnerable young adults first and foremost, even if that means putting ourselves second, third, or even fourth." However, he goes on to say that that NCP members are concerned about the practical application of the new guidelines set forth in the Nolan Report. "There's not a fear of the guidelines," he insists; "Most priests want to embrace them wholeheartedly." Still he adds that "justifiably, they want to know more about them."

[AUTHOR ID] Tara Holmes is the former deputy editor of the Catholic Times. She now works as a freelance journalist in the United Kingdom.